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Police Must Stop Killing Mentally Ill People and Send Them to Treatment Instead

“We see it every day, in the news and in the media, confrontations between people with mental illness and authorities,” the narrator begins as a crying woman is seen strapped to a gurney in a jail surrounded by a half-dozen police. The scene shifts to a city sidewalk where police surround and beat a man. “Or people with mental health issues find themselves being run into a dysfunctional prison system without getting the appropriate care.”

That is the start of a new short video series by Brave New Films, This is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Illness, that underscores a somber and overlooked reality: that police and jails, not trained social workers and treatment, are America’s frontline with the untreated mentally ill.

“More than half of all suspects shot and killed by police were suffering from mental illness—this is crazy,” said Robert Greenwald, president of Brave New Films. “Over 300,000 Americans in prison today have a mental illness diagnosis… This three-part series calls on the critical and immediate need for the treatment of mental health through a public health system, not the barbaric criminalization of it.”

The series opens by focusing on what happens when law enforcement is not trained to recognize and deal with people with mental illness. It underscores that training police officers in crisis intervention is the most cost-effective solution. But most departments don’t use it.

“In the worst cases, these encounters end in tragedy,” the narrator continues, as a Black man who has been shot in the back lies on the ground, badly bleeding. “Or people with mental health issues find themselves run into a dysfunctional prison system.”

The film continues with the story of Becky, a Black woman who tells her story of unexpectedly slipping into mental illness, starting with hearing voices and other auditory hallucinations. She recounts losing control, threatening a woman she didn’t know, and was charged with felony harassment and jailed. A month after she was released, she tried to commit suicide. Becky soberly tells the camera that all she needed was treatment for her illness, including taking medication.

But as the filmmakers note, there are more than 356,000 people with mental illness in jails and prison across the country, versus 35,000 in state hospitals. The jailed and imprisoned might consider themselves lucky in a macabre sense, because as the film continues viewers see a stream of TV news reports where police killed mentally ill people.

The solution, the film’s on-camera experts say, is training police to take control of difficult situations without resorting to violence—such as knowing how to identify people who are mentally ill, how to talk to them without escalating to a confrontation, and calming a situation so the ill person can get help at a treatment center and not a jail.

As the film points out, police have become the most frequent first responders to untreated mental illness. “More than half of all suspects shot and killed by police suffered from mental illness,” it notes, adding that treatment programs cost a fraction of jailing a person.

But, as New York City psychologist Dr. Sahar Khoshakhlagh—who was accidentally hit in Times Square when police shot at a mentally ill man—told the filmmakers, “because the NYPD have not had the training to work with people with mental illness, they can’t differentiate a person with mental illness with someone who’s actually trying to hurt someone.”

Meanwhile, there is no mystery about the better approach needed.

“If I had been diverted to a mental hospital, I wouldn’t have a felony on my record,” Becky said. “And I would have immediately gotten treatment. Because when I did get treatment finally, when I got medication that worked, I came out of the confusion.” 

Brave New Films’ Greenwald asks viewers to post a link to the video on the various presidential candidates’ Facebook pages so “we can call on them to come out for humane police trainings, not more tasers and abuse for mentally ill people!”

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